Tiny Caribbean island creates world's first sperm whale reserve

Around 300 square miles on the western side of Dominica serve as key nursing and feeding grounds for the animals.

The tiny Caribbean island of Dominica is creating the world’s first marine protected area for one of Earth’s largest animals: the endangered sperm whale.

Nearly 300 square miles (800 sq km) of royal blue waters on the western side of the island nation that serve as key nursing and feeding grounds will be designated as a reserve, the government has announced.

Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said: “We want to ensure these majestic and highly intelligent animals are safe from harm and continue keeping our waters and our climate healthy.”

Scientists say the reserve will not only protect the animals, but it will also help fight climate change.

Sperm whales defecate near the surface because they shut down non-vital functions when they dive to depths of up to 10,000ft (3,000m). As a result, nutrient-rich poo remains on the ocean surface and creates plankton blooms, which capture carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and drag it to the ocean floor when they die.

Sperm whales in Dominica are believed to defecate more than whales elsewhere, said Shane Gero, a whale biologist and founder of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project, a research programme focused on sperm whales in the eastern Caribbean.

The reason for that is unclear, Mr Gero said, but it could be that they are eating twice as much, or maybe it is connected to the type of squid they consume.

“In some respects, sperm whales are fighting climate change on our behalf,” he added.

Fewer than 500 sperm whales are estimated to live in the waters surrounding Dominica, part of a population that moves along the Lesser Antilles chain, swimming as far south as St Vincent and north into Guadeloupe.

Unlike sperm whales elsewhere in the world, the ones around the eastern Caribbean do not travel very far, Mr Gero said.

He noted that sperm whales are a matrilineal society, with young males leaving and switching oceans at some point in their lives. As a result, protecting the species is key, especially if few female calves are born, he said.

“One calf being entangled can mean the end of a family,” he said.

Sperm whales can produce a single calf every five to seven years.

In the waters around Dominica and elsewhere, sperm whales have been hit by ships, entangled in fishing gear and affected by agricultural run-off, limiting their survival.

In the pre-whaling days, an estimated two million sperm whales roamed the Earth’s deep waters before they were hunted for oil used to burn lamps and lubricate machinery. Now, some 800,000 are left, Mr Gero said.

The government of Dominica said the reserve will allow sustainable artisanal fishing and delineate an international shipping lane to avoid more deaths of sperm whales, which have the largest brain in the world and can grow up to 50ft (15m).

Once the reserve is created, the prime minister said his administration will appoint an officer and observers to ensure the area is respected and that whale tourism regulations are enforced. Visitors can still swim with sperm whales and see them from a boat, but in limited numbers.

The move was praised by scientists and conservationists including Enric Sala, an explorer-in-residence at National Geographic.

“The government of Dominica has realised that the sperm whales, which were probably here before humans, are also citizens of Dominica,” he said.

“These whales will spend most of the year offshore the island. So, they are taking care of some of their citizens in a way that few nations have ever done before.”

An estimated 35 families of sperm whales spend most of their time in waters surrounding Dominica.

Mr Gero said some are likely to be more than 60 years old, and they communicate via clicking sounds in a vocalisation known as codas.

“That’s kind of like asking ‘I’m from Dominica, are you?’” he said. “It’s a symbolic marker.”

Mr Gero and his team of researchers have also named individual whales.

One is called Snow because one scientist was reading a Margaret Atwood book with a character named Snowman, and another sperm whale has been nicknamed Fruit Salad because a researcher happened to be eating that at the time. That whale’s calf was named Soursop, in keeping with the theme.

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